Grim budget facing Lee County commissioners Thursday

The prospects Lee County commissioners face Thursday niight at their first budget hearing are grim.

Operating hours reduced at county libraries, parks and animal services. The elimination of 25 positions in public safety, 19 of them paramedics. Toll booths unmanned. Street lights standing dark. Pools closed, swimming lessons eliminated and park lighting hours reduced.

Those are a few of the cuts county department heads are recommending to address the 22.7 percent drop the county experienced in property tax base — and therefore faces in property tax revenue.

Interim County Manager Karen Hawes, who became manager-in-waiting when commissioners agreed to discuss a full-time deal with her this week, is bringing in a proposed budget that is balanced. It’s balanced by cutting programs and work force and tapping $83 million in reserves.

“I did sit down with each department head as we went through this,” said Hawes. “Overall, none of the department heads is jumping up and down saying they just can’t do it.”

The cuts are pervasive. Eight county departments face operating budget cuts of more than 10 percent, including transit, public safety and parks and recreation.

Even the Sheriff’s Office budget is down 2.62 percent, from $166.7 million to $162.3 million.

Counting the constitutional offices funded by the county the operating budget is proposed to drop 6.7 percent or $45 million.

“What we’re looking at is what services are duplicated,” Hawes said. “We’re trying to have as minimal impact as possible with no tax increase.”

County commissioners already committed to that, setting maximum rates for the five line-item taxes they collect at current levels. That’s a rate of 5.3441 mils, or a little over $5.34 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

Transportation director Scott Gilbertson said that turning off street lights away from intersections is just one strategy that can save big. Plans call for turning off 40 miles of street lights on Bonita Beach Road, Ben Hill Griffin Parkway, Three Oaks Parkway, Summerlin Road and other major roads.

“We’re leaving them on close to intersections,” Gilbertson said. “We don’t believe there’s a safety issue.”

Dimming those lights would save $420,000 a year.

“There are cuts and there are hard decisions to make,” Hawes said.

Hawes also offered a glimpse into the future this week, offering a strategy memo that calls for public interaction to nail down service level standards.

During October and November, she said, she’ll have every tax or fee-funded department create a presentation on what they do, outlining what “core services” they deliver. All presentations would be recorded and offered on the county Web site for review.

In December, Hawes calls for a survey of the public on core services. Recommendations for defining core service levels would take place in January, before commissioners meet to set yearly goals in February.

The public hearing will begin at 5 p.m. today, at the old Lee County Courthouse in downtown Fort Myers.

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